Tuesday, 30 September 2014

enabling student consideration of instructor feedback

This paper in Higher Education considers the role of continuous assessment in student learning. Continuous assessment, if I understand it correctly, is simply assessing students throughout the term on their learning of the course content. This is in contrast to discontinuous assessment in which students might get assessed once or twice throughout the course (e.g. midterm and final exam - nothing else). Continuous assessment, might include weekly or even daily quizzes or assignments. The advantage of continuous assessment is that students can chart their development in mastering the course content. The problem with continuous assessment, however, is the marking load for instructors - if it is going to be effective for learning it needs to be accompanied by meaningful feedback - and that it commonly mixes formative and summative assessment. The assessments are used to both provide corrective feedback to students but are also counted as marks towards students' final grade. The effectiveness of the feedback thus seems to degrade with the summative aspect due to student performance anxiety. In addition, to be effective, continuous feedback must be timely: effectiveness decreases the longer the period of time between student completion of the work and their receipt of the feedback. Timely feedback is difficult in large classes but there are ways around this problem if marking/feedback is constructed such that it happens in-class rather than out of class. See Schinske & Tanner's article on marking and also this website on the use of IF AT forms.

One of the interesting things Hernández suggests is to have students consider the feedback and reflect on how they will use it to improve work on a subsequent assignment. Thus it brings in a metacognitive component in which students must consider how they will develop their ability to learn the material. It seems similar to me to the concept of exam wrappers in which students reflect on how they performed on an exam comparing the exam results to how they approach their studying and consider how they could improve or strengthen their learning process.

In the case of continuous feedback I can imagine having a post-assignment wrapper followed by an assignment wrapper:

  1. students submit their work for marking/feedback
  2. upon receipt of their graded work they write a reflection on how they will use the feedback to improve future work
  3. with the subsequent assignment students attach a short reflection indicating how the feedback from the previous assignment was actually used to improve the current assignment
Only problem with this is the extra marking and grading involved for instructors. But perhaps there is a way around that difficult by incorporating the wrappers into peer discussions. The point with the wrappers is not to create more marking for instructors, but rather to enable student consideration and incorporation of the feedback we provide them.


Dihoff, R., Brosvic, G. M., ML, M. L. E., & Cook, M. J. (2004). Provision of feedback during preparation for academic testing: learning is enhanced by immediate but not delayed feedback. The Psychological Record, 54(2), 207–231. Retrieved from http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/tpr/vol54/iss2/4/

Hern├índez, R. (2012). Does continuous assessment in higher education support student learning? Higher Education, 64(4), 489–502. doi 10.1007/s10734-012-9506-7

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054

Weimer, M. (2010, July 29). Exam Wrappers. Faculty Focus - The Teaching Professor Blog. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/exam-wrappers/

Monday, 29 September 2014

do we need to teach everything that we know?

The Faculty Focus website just re-published an old post from the Teaching Professor which asks the question: why don't we teach the telephone book? It relates back to thinking about learner-centered teaching and using disciplinary content to teach skills that cut across disciplines: thinking, researching, communicating, inter-cultural competence, citizenship, to name a few. The argument here is that for many disciplines, and in particular the sciences, the amount of knowledge to be learned has increased to such a great extent that it is no longer possible to teach or learn it all. So why do so many of our science courses try to do this? I am torn because I teach molecular cell biology and biochemistry and these are very content heavy courses. I appreciate how Maryellen Weimer in her book, Learner-Centered Teaching argues that we should not do away with content but rather need to think about it as a vehicle to also teach students the other transferable skills I listed above. In my courses, students need to have a grasp of biochemical language and concepts, but learning this should not interfere with students ability to learn how to learn. Students still need to be given the guidance and time to become metacognitively adept about how, why and what they learn. I am still not sure how to do this in my content-heavy courses, except that I will provide metacognitive prompts for students to consider how we know something and how they learn the material. And perhaps along the way students might even consider the real reasons they are taking my class.


Daniel J. Klionsky. (2006). Why Don’t We Teach the Telephone Book? The Teaching Professor, 20(3), 7. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/curriculum-development/dont-teach-telephone-book/

Weimer, M. (2013). The Function of Content. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 114–142). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

re-thinking the role of course content

Maryellen Weimer has a good post on The Teaching Professor Blog today that discusses the role of content in our courses. It is a reflection on a recent article published in the History Teacher by Peter Burkholder. Basically both Weimer and Burkholder advocate for using course content in a myriad of ways. This echoes Weimer's argument for the same in her 2013 book Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. In there she asserts that as professionals we still must ensure that our students learn the knowledge of our disciplines necessary for them to take their place in the work-world. However, this same course content should also be used as a vehicle to teach students how to think, communicate, research and the other general education skills that are so sought after by employers. So, rather than lecturing for content delivery, as educators we need to consider how to design learning experiences for our students such that they learn the knowledge within different contexts becoming comfortable and capable with using that knowledge in a variety of ways: to clearly communicate a position, as a basis for researching a question, to inform their thinking, to be able to work in teams.

So how do this? The Burkholder article provides a number of different teaching strategies, none of which will be new to readers of this blog. All are active learning in nature and all involve some aspect of flipping the classroom, backwards design, class discussion, immediate feedback, and group testing. One teaching strategy he notes in his article called the "Castle-top" model looks remarkably similar to Team-Based Learning in which students prepare before class, take a test as an individual and within a team followed by application of the learned material in class.

Our courses are not only about teaching our students disciplinary content. They are also about providing venues for our students to become thinkers, researchers, and communicators. This is what is going to enable our students to succeed once they leave the university - these gen ed skills are transferable to other diverse contexts to a far greater extent than the disciplinary knowledge they learn.


Burkholder P. 2014 A content means to a critical thinking end: Group quizzing in history surveys. The History Teacher, 47(4): 551-578. Available from http://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/pdfs/A14_Burkholder.pdf

Weimer M. 2014. Diversifying the Role Course Content Plays. The Teaching Professor Blog, Sept 24. Available from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/course-content-can-fulfill-multiple-roles/

Weimer M. 2013. The Function of Content. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 114–142). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Monday, 22 September 2014

on note-taking

Maryellen Weimer has a short article on developing students' note-taking ability posted on the Teaching Professor website. It explains why note-taking is so important - it promotes learning. This is the primary reason why I do not make my own course notes completely available to students: I think that taking notes during class enables students' thinking of the material. Note that this is not the same as recording every word an instructor states during class. Good note-taking is a skill that requires judgement - a metacognitive skill. I resisted placing my lecture slides online for students until students informed me that they used them to write their notes on - they rarely simply relied on the text on the slide but rather embellished the text I had already typed. So that was great! students were engaging with the material in-class.

This blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Ed discusses a study that suggests that handwriting notes on paper is better than typing notes on a laptop during a lecture. This was measured in terms of learning/recall by the participants in the study. This article from the Atlantic discusses the same research. I think the important point from the research is to think while taking notes rather than simply recording verbatim what an instructor is lecturing.

My own personal experience is that typing is far more effective for me than writing: I cannot read my own handwriting after taking notes during a lecture or conference presentation. This is the reason why I started carrying around an iPad and using Evernote to jot down notes. In addition, it is way easier to search for notes when it is organized by something like Evernote. When I started to type to take notes I found that it improved the conversation within my own mind with the material being presented. Hand-writing notes I found I became too worried about the quality of my handwriting so that I could read it later!  :P

When I type my notes I am not transcribing what the speaker is saying. Rather, my typing is writing to think. And I think that is the important point to impress on students - note-taking is not transcribing. Note-taking is writing to think not thinking to write. My typing is my form of writing which is my way to think. I believe that this should be the take home message to students: Don't think about writing - write to facilitate your thinking. If approached this way it becomes clear that transcribing a lecture or presentation is not thinking, and this is the reason, I think, that many typists do not do well on subsequent quizzes - they haven't been thinking while they type on their laptop.

So I think one of the comments posted to The Chronicle blog-post is correct; it depends on the typing and handwriting skills of the particular student. And, of course it depends upon the level of engagement the student brings to the lecture.

I wonder if this issue will be moot in a few years when we are all using active learning strategies in our classrooms and rarely lecturing?


Meyer R. 2014. To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand: Students do worse on quizzes when they use keyboards in class. The Atlantic [online - May 1]. Available from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/to-remember-a-lecture-better-take-notes-by-hand/361478/

Perez-Hernandez D. 2014. Taking Notes by Hand Benefits Recall, Researchers Find. The Chronicle of Higher Education [online March 28]. Available from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/taking-notes-by-hand-benefits-recall-researchers-find/51411

Weimer M. 2013. How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills. The Teaching Professor 27(6): 7. Available from http://www.magnapubs.com/blog/teaching-and-learning/how-to-help-students-improve-their-note-taking-skills/

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

does the prospect of grading interfere with designing educational experiences?

Another great article co-authored by Kimberly Tanner. I so like how she thinks about teaching as evidenced by her many articles in CBE - Life Sciences Education. This article takes our current grading practices to task considering both its history and assumed purposes. She and co-author Jeffrey Schinske suggest that grading on the curve is counter-productive because it promotes competition rather than learning among students. Indeed, curving assumes that intelligence is innate and thus there will always be a proportion of the student population that will be outstanding, excellent, very good, satisfactory, etc (i.e. A, B, C,  etc.... BTW whatever happened to Es? they consider that).

To my way of thinking, and their research into the literature I think supports this, a large number of high grades for a given course section should indicate that learning was successful - the instructor should be lauded for being a great teacher! However, they are not so naive to assume that all grading practices are similar nor that all teachers have the same criteria for grading. And thus raises their point that comparing grades between teachers, courses, programs, institutions is a messy, unreliable process.

So what is to be done? They suggest keeping a critical perspective on what grades mean and to consider changing our grading practices so that we are not discouraged from the potential increase in marking that sometimes accompanies active learning strategies.

Indeed, I suspect this is Tanner's reason for publishing this paper. Her body of work supports a change in how we teach from one that is instructor-centric to one that is learner-centric. This paper, I think, is an attempt to provide instructors with an approach to grading that will free them up to consider using more active-learning strategies in their classroom. Active-learning teaching strategies do not necessarily mean an increase in marking load - if we re-consider how and what we grade.


Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054

Sunday, 14 September 2014

why implement backwards design?

This post from the i-clicker blog discusses backwards design in the development and design of a course. This is very similar to what Team-Based Learning also advocates:

  1. Start with the learning objectives. 
  2. Design the assessments that will determine whether students meet those learning objectives.
  3. Then determine the content and activities that will develop students' abilities to master the learning objectives. 

I still have along way to go in properly implementing this in my existing courses. It's difficult to re-tool courses that are already received well by students. So what propels me to retool them using backwards design, TBL, authentic assessment, or flipped classroom approaches? Even though my students provide feedback indicating that they enjoy my courses and that they think they learn much, I am unconvinced that true learning is happening. I say that because students often forget what they have learned from my classes between one term and the next. I need to change my teaching practice such that the memorize-regurgitate-purge learning cycle is no longer successful in getting students through my courses.

Friday, 12 September 2014

does liberal education and integrative studies prepare for creativity?

What I found interesting in Secrets of the Creative Brain from the July/August 2014 issue of the Atlantic by Nancy Andreasen is the finding that creative people are prepared, tend to teach themselves, have broad interests and persevere. The finding that creative people tend to be polymaths seems to be connected to creativity because the creative act is about making novel connections unapparent to others. As a result, school should not narrow students too early on a particular subject or discipline. Education needs to first prepare the mind with a broad spectrum of understanding and knowledge so that creativity has been nurtured for when connections become available.

So, does a liberal education and integrative studies have an advantage in preparing minds for creative ideas?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

changing the learning paradigm

Maryellen Weimer published a great post yesterday on her Teaching Professor Blog: "She didn't teach. We had to learn it ourselves." She discusses the comments that a colleague recently received on her end-of-term student evaluations and suggested that this is a result of student-centered learning or active learning in which students are given more responsibility for their learning. Comments such as this typically arise because students resist shouldering this responsibility. However, Weimer suggests that instructors could do a better job of unpacking the teaching and learning strategy used in the course so that students might better understand why they are shouldering the burden of their own learning - teachers cannot learn the material for students. If students understand the reasons for the implementation of a particular teaching and learning strategy they are more likely to accept responsibility for their own learning and more deeply engage in the learning environment. 

I have also received this sort of comment on my student course evaluations when I have used the teaching strategy Team-Based Learning. Some students felt that I had abdicated my teaching responsibilities when I didn't lecture every class and instead had students doing work (under my guidance) during class. I thought I had explained why I was using the teaching strategy and presented the data suggesting that deeper learning happens with collaborative active learning. What I have read over the past summer, and am reminded of again by Weimer's post is that as instructors we need to constantly be explicit about our teaching strategies and about the metacognitive development that is happening in our students as a result. The objective of every educator, I am sure, is to produce independent self-regulated learners that are no longer reliant on instructors to tell them what is the right and wrong way to do things. But this is something that requires work on the part of both learners and instructors in the sense that teachers must resist the easy way out and not give students the answers they seek instead guiding them to produce their own answers. And for their part students must be patient and understand that learning is hard difficult applied work and is not easy, quick, or simple.

Otherwise we graduate students who are unable to contextualise situations resulting in an inability to think on their feet when conditions change. As instructors we have an obligation to develop students intellectual ability.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

is higher ed knowledge transmission or skill development?

Some recent articles about the future of higher ed appeared in the 2014 June 28 issue of The Economist. In a nutshell: academics will lose their jobs to MOOCs, MOOCs deliver low cost programs throughout the world, and the demand for higher ed is still there because of the lifetime earning power with a degree, though that has diminished in recent years.

Part of the problem with their analysis is that it seems to me that the authors still view education as transmission of knowledge rather than the development of learning skills. However, part of that perception is likely due to many classes in our universities being run with lectures dispensing knowledge to students rather than using class time to develop students' thinking, researching, and communication skills.

One of the things I found interesting, though, is their analysis that the lifetime earnings potential is markedly higher for graduate degrees than for undergraduate degrees - the earnings differential for undergraduate degrees has decreased over the last couple of decades but not so much for graduate degrees. Some will likely say that this simply reflects the fact that bachelor's degrees have become the new high school degree.

A great rebuttal to this issue of The Economist can be found at the Behind The Numbers blog. It discusses the dangers of linking education with profit. Public not-for-profit education is accountable only to the citizenry. In contrast, for-profit education may not have students best interests at heart but rather its investors. 

Higher Ed articles in The Economist, 2014 June 28 issue

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Minerva: a non-traditional for-profit university

This article from the 1 Sept 2014 issue of The Atlantic discusses an alternative to MOOCs being offered through a new for-profit university: Minerva. No bricks and mortar institution here. Rather students live in a different part of the world each year and attend online real-time classes - not lectures. And enrolment is selective, not massive. What I do like about this approach is that it does away with the traditional lecture assuming that students are smart enough to google things they don't know and instead uses class time (online) for applying the knowledge. Pre-class reading is encouraged by short quizzes administered at the beginning of each class in a similar manner to Team-Based Learning. To encourage that students remain focused throughout the class, students are warned that sometime during the class there will be a surprise pop quiz on the material being discussed. Students work in teams on problems that apply the material learned outside of class. Sounds like Team-Based Learning to me.

I still believe that being in the real-time physical presence of instructors and fellow colleagues improves learning - humans are a social species. However, I do think that moving rote learning out of the classroom and instead using class time for active learning activities will produce deeper learning. There is ample published evidence to support this claim. Interesting that students of Minerva indicate that attending class is exhausting because there is never a moment when they can let their attention wander - active learning requires focus on the task at hand whether that is solving problems or discussing learned concepts with fellow students. Forty-five minutes of exhaustive focus on learning, however, will likely pay dividends later when the learning, knowledge, skills are still deeply embedded within students, accessible when needed during their post-university lives.


Wood G. 2014. The Future of College? The Atlantic, [Internet] August 13. Available from http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/08/the-future-of-college/375071/

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

new beginnings

This week marks the end of summer in my household. In addition to the weather being noticeably cooler and leaves beginning to yellow, we start teaching and our daughter starts university this week. Exciting times but also sad in the loss of unstructured time. At the same time part of the excitement that my daughter feels about starting university is welcoming the structure that facilitates learning. Interesting that our lives need times of structure to apply ourselves but then also unstructured time to regenerate our energy and allow free association of the different thoughts accumulated over the year that need to be integrated in order to permit the creativity that makes our professional lives enjoyable.

Something new for me this year is being appointed managing editor of Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching (CELT). This is a scholarly journal published by the the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and contains peer reviewed articles arising from the society's annual conference on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). I am excited by this new venture because of my interest in developing learning environments and practices that resist the typical learning cycle of memorize/regurgitate/purge that seems to permeate much of higher education. I want to give my students life-changing experiences rather than simply a collection of courses appearing on a transcript. I believe that the papers published in CELT (and its sister publication CJSoTL) contain critical reflections on teaching and learning that when shared have the potential to transform students' learning experiences into ones that can positively shape who they will become.

I have been reading much SoTL literature over the past year about what makes teaching a scholarly activity and how that activity can be translated into scholarship. What has emerged for me is that SoTL is diverse in its approach to investigating teaching and learning being both experiential and objective in nature while simultaneously being robust in its critical appraisal of how evidence is collected and considered in the development of how we design the educational experiences of our students.

For me, Weimer (2006) makes the clearest statement of SoTL's goals: it needs to be both credible and viable. Viable in the sense that it needs to be read in order to have an impact on improving teaching and learning practices and thus must be both well-written and have something to say to educational practitioners. For it to be viable, SoTL must be credible by using acceptable methods of analysis and critical reflection on questions relevant to teaching and learning. If SoTL is going to have an impact on our students' ability to learn, it must be credible and viable.

Bernstein (2010), Felten (2013), and O'Brien (2008) present good structures for understanding the nature of SoTL and the different levels of engagement possible for educators and learners resonating with Weimer's (2006) criteria for how SoTL should be judged. For SoTL to be credible and viable it needs to have clear goals, a sound understanding of its scholarly and learning context, using appropriate methods to gather evidence of significance to the teaching and learning community that is critically considered and publicly disseminated.

As an editor of a SoTL journal my objective will be to support SoTL as a viable and credible force for improving the learning outcomes of our students. CELT will thus be one resource freely available online to help teachers develop their voice (Elliott-Johns 2011) and use evidence-based educational practices.


Bernstein, D. (2010) "Finding Your Place in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning." International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4(2): Article 4.

Elliott-Johns, S.E. (2011) "Reclaiming a Writing Voice as a New Teacher Educator: SoTL as Portal." International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 5(2): Article 22.

Felten, P. (2013) "Principles of Good Practice in SoTL." Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 1(1): 121-125.

O’Brien, M. (2008) "Navigating the SoTL Landscape: A Compass, Map and Some Tools for Getting Started." International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(2): Article 15.

Weimer, M. (2006). "Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature that Makes a Difference." Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.